Chapter 1 begins on Good Friday morning, April 14, 1865. Booth awoke and assumed the day would be another in a series of days that each seemed worse than the last. On April 9th, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered. On the 11th, Lincoln had called for blacks to be given the right to vote, and on the 13th the city had celebrated with its grand illumination.
Booth’s despair and anger is tied explicitly to the chain of events that seem to be leading to the end of the war. He is angry at the Northern signs of celebration at the news and desperate to see any sign that the South might still have a chance to win.
Booth came from a theatrical family, and had a bright and profitable future as a handsome actor with fans all over the country, in both the North and South. Although he was vain and cared about his reputation, he was willing to sacrifice his life for the lost cause of the South.
Although Booth was successful and had a great deal to lose by attacking the president, he still felt that the principles for which the South fought the war were more important than his own personal success and career.
On April 14, after eating breakfast at the National Hotel where he was staying, Booth went to Ford’s Theatre to collect his mail. He found a letter waiting for him and heard the news that had come from the president’s messenger earlier that morning: Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd would be attending the evening performance at the theater that night, in less than eight hours, with General Ulysses S. Grant in tow. The theater’s owners were going to prepare a special, expanded presidential box.
Booth’s privileged position as an actor meant he could have mail sent to Ford’s Theatre. Because of this perk, Booth was in the right place at the right time. This unexpected piece of information was a stroke of luck. It was also one of the first instances when being an actor would help Booth to carry out the assassination.
Booth knew everything about the layout of Ford’s Theatre and how Lincoln would move through it that night. He also knew all the different ways of accessing the president’s box, which hung directly above the stage. And although Booth had never played a role in the play Our American Cousin, which Lincoln would watch that evening, he knew everything about the play’s timing and action. It was the perfect situation: instead of having to hunt the president down, Lincoln would fall into his lap. Booth had eight hours to prepare, which he thought was probably just enough time to get ready.
Booth’s understanding of the world of the theater, which led him to be able to assassinate the president, had fictional and real components: he knew the physical layout of the theater, and he was also familiar with the fictional action of the play that the Lincolns would be seeing. The fact that Booth’s grasp of reality and of fiction came together to lead to his historic action foreshadows the blurring of reality and fiction that will propel Booth for the remainder of the novel.
On the same day, Abraham Lincoln ate breakfast with his family and discussed the details of the surrender at Appomattox with his eldest son Robert, who was home from the war and had been present at the historic moment. Later, Lincoln conducted a meeting with his cabinet, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Welles wrote in his diary that Lincoln had dreamt that he was on the water in an indescribable vessel, speeding towards a shore. Lincoln took his dreams seriously; the dream about the vessel recurred to him before each important battle of the war. After a dream about his son, he had sent a telegram to Mary Todd telling her to take away Tad’s pistol. Lincoln spent the rest of the day in a routine way, taking meetings, reading mail, going through paperwork. He wanted to finish his government business by 3:00 PM, when he planned to speak to his wife about something.
Lincoln has a sense that the country has reached a momentous juncture; the war is likely to soon be over. In his conversations on his final day as president, Lincoln seeks to relish this moment while looking ahead to the future. In the cabinet meeting, he conveys his dream to his closest aides and advisors; it’s a dream that has, in the past, signaled the approach of an important moment. While Lincoln believes the dream to be a premonition of an important battle, the dream was, in retrospect, a sign of a very different kind of historical turning point: the murder of a president.
At the Ford Theater, preparations were underway. A notice was published in the newspaper announcing that Grant and Lincoln would attend the play that night, and the theater borrowed flags to decorate the president’s box from the nearby treasury department. Booth saw one of the theater’s owners returning with the flags, confirming to him that the president was coming to Ford’s. Meanwhile, a young army surgeon named Dr. Charles A. Leale decided to attend the performance, eager to catch a glimpse of the hero Grant.
Booth took note of the planning and preparations undertaken by the theater’s owners as he started to think through his own plan for that evening. Others like Dr. Leale, were also planning their evenings around the exciting news that the political elite would be attending the theater that night. The elaborate planning for the president’s visit sets up a contrast with Booth’s somewhat last-minute decision to throw together a plan for attacking the president. Booth’s plan succeeds because it is a combination of seizing an unexpected opportunity and planning for it the best he can.
Booth went to the Kirkwood House, the hotel where the new Vice President Andrew Johnson was staying, and left a letter with the desk clerk to be given to Johnson. The message read, “Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth.” He then went to the boarding house owned by Mary Surratt, the mother of Booth’s friend John Harrison Surratt, where he gave Mary a package to bring to her other inn, located south of Washington in Surrattsville, Maryland. Booth also asked Mary to tell the tavern keeper John Lloyd to prepare the guns, ammunition and other supplies he and her son had hidden there, because he would come to pick these things up in Maryland that evening. Accompanied by one of her boarders, Lewis Weichmann, Mary soon left for Surrattsville.
As Booth went about town making his plans for the night, some of his actions made more practical sense than others. The note to Vice President Andrew Johnson was cryptic and served little purpose. Booth may have meant it to create a dramatic effect, but it could have created some suspicion. It certainly would not help him in carrying out his mission. His visit to Mary Surratt, on the other hand, made a great deal of sense. He was beginning to recruit help in setting up supplies that he would need during his escape, after he committed the deed.
Booth made his final preparations. He selected a Deringer pistol that could be easily concealed as his weapon. The pistol only fired a single shot, but it was a large, solid ball weighing almost a full ounce, that was deadly if it hit its target. Reloading was time consuming, and Booth knew that he would not have that time to spare. There was a risk that the pistol would misfire. Swanson speculates that perhaps this risk added to the thrill Booth wanted to take in his adventurous act. Perhaps he thought it more heroic or honorable to kill with a single shot. Or perhaps he simply thought the gun was better looking and more stylish than a big six-shooter. As his backup weapon, Booth brought an elegant-looking bowie knife. He took few other supplies: some money, a compass in a velvet case, and pictures of five of his girlfriends.
The newspaper clipping that drew James L. Swanson to the story of Lincoln’s murder included a picture of the Deringer pistol Booth used. The pistol was an impractical choice for Booth, but perhaps it seemed to the actor like the perfect weapon for the most dramatic moment of his life. Swanson sees Booth’s choice of weapon as a reflection of his theatrical mindset, thinking much more about how the act of assassinating the president would be portrayed than about the practical difficulties that could come up.
In Surrattsville, Mary Surratt told the tavern keeper, John Lloyd, to expect callers that evening who would come for the hidden shooting irons, or fire arms. Lloyd took the shooting irons from their hiding spot between the walls and put them, with the binoculars he had found in the package, in his bedroom.
Mary Surratt carried out Booth’s wishes, preparing the things he believed he would need as a fugitive. Again, choosing a gun and a binocular may have been the result of the actor’s dramatic notion of what a fugitive would need; they were not the most practical items to have prepared.
Back in Washington, Booth gathered the conspirators he had recruited to strike against the president. The year before, these men had failed in a harebrained plan to kidnap Lincoln. There had been a number of threats to Lincoln’s life over the course of his presidency—he received death threats and jars of poisoned fruit from angry people who supported the South. On the way to his first inauguration in 1861, Lincoln had travelled in disguise through the city of Baltimore, where rebels were planning to assassinate him. But although many such plots on the president’s life circulated throughout the war, none of them resulted in serious action.
Lincoln’s life had been under threat many times during his presidency, but he rarely made any changes to his behavior out of a need to protect himself. Only when a specific plot was uncovered did the president take steps to thwart it. This tendency left Lincoln vulnerable to a spontaneous or quickly-planned attack like Booth’s, but it also showed his belief that the principles he stood for were destined to triumph with or without him as president.
Booth himself had organized a plan to kidnap Lincoln in late 1864. He paid for things for his coconspirators and allowed them to enjoy the perks of his fame, hoping to guarantee their loyalty to his plan. But on March 17, 1865, the night when the conspirators planned to ambush Lincoln’s carriage, Lincoln did not appear as planned. In fact, he was giving a speech in the National, the very hotel where Booth stayed when in Washington. After that, events moved quickly, as Richmond fell and General Lee surrendered. Yet presidential security was so weak that all Booth would have had to do, if he was determined to give his life to kill the president, was go to the Executive Mansion, request a meeting with Lincoln, and shoot him.
Booth had previously believed that to affect the outcome of the war he needed a complicated plan and coconspirators. But in a stroke of bad luck for Booth and good luck for Lincoln, Lincoln changed his plans the night when Booth hoped to kidnap him. Booth’s plan had been too complicated, perhaps, and too reliant on everything working out the way he thought it would. In reality, presidential security was so weak that no plan was needed at all; Booth, though, would have had to be willing to be immediately captured or killed himself after killing the president, and it seems that he wanted to survive.
Now, on April 14, 1865, Booth called on George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell to help him murder Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. David Herold would accompany Lewis Powell to Seward’s home, where the Secretary was lying in bed recovering from a serious carriage crash. Atzerodt tried to refuse his assignment to murder Johnson, but Booth threatened to turn him in to the authorities if he refused. What none of Booth’s co-conspirators knew was that Booth had given a friend a letter to be sent to a newspaper the following day. In this letter, he justified the assassinations and incriminated his co-conspirators, by signing their names to the letter as well.
Not satisfied to merely take the chance presented to him, Booth was determined to expand his attack on Lincoln into a full-blown attack on the entire Union cabinet. Perhaps this instinct to pursue a grand conspiracy came from his ideas about the proper components to a dramatic action that would shape the course of history. Booth did not only wish to kill the president; it was important to him that his intentions for the assassination would be understood and his political ideas disseminated.
Earlier that afternoon, Lincoln had gone on a carriage ride alone with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. She had been devastated by the 1862 death of their eleven-year-old son Willie. Now, Lincoln was relieved by the coming end of the war, and told Mary that they must both turn a corner and put the distressing years of the war behind them. Perhaps they could visit the Pacific Ocean or return to Chicago.
Lincoln was concerned about being a good husband and looking after his wife who had suffered during the years in which he had to put his responsibilities as president before his family. Although the Union principles were important to Lincoln, he did not wish to sacrifice his personal happiness or that of his loved ones for these principles, if possible.
This carriage ride had forced other important business to be delayed, and the Lincolns were late arriving at the theater. General Ulysses Grant and his wife had not accepted the Lincolns’ invitation to the theater, so Lincoln and Mary Todd brought their friends Major Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. When the presidential party arrived, the action on stage stopped, and the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief,” the traditional music for a presidential entrance. The audience rose and cheered for the president who had brought down slavery and saved the country from breaking in two.
During Lincoln’s time at Ford’s, the blurring of distinctions between the theatrical and the real would create confusion among those present about what was really happening. At first, however, the theatrical was put aside for the act of respect towards the president. For the entire audience, the war outside was still a pressing concern, and the arrival of the president who led that war could not go unrecognized.